It's hard to imagine a shiny Mary Jane slipper or a faded cotton hoodie having grave impact on the planet. But experts insist that what we wear — from the way it’s made to the way it's cleaned — can be a factor in global warming.
"People think of fashion as the stuff you buy and wear," said Jo Paoletti, a University of Maryland professor who studies clothing trends. "But it's an entire process from the raw material to the making of fibers into yarns and then into fabrics, to manufacturing them into clothing and transporting it to where it's sold. There are energy costs all along the way."
For example, 96 percent of clothing worn in the U.S. is produced elsewhere — mostly in Asia, in fact, where the population crisis is of more immediate concern than Westerners' greenhouse-gas woes.
And energy expenses don't stop once the garment reaches consumers. A study by the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge University found that 60 percent of the greenhouse gases generated over the life of a simple T-shirt comes from the typical 25 washings and machine dryings. A typical washing machine emits 160 pounds of carbon dioxide each year. A clothes dryer puffs out 700 pounds. And that’s not even taking into account the environmental toxins used in traditional dry cleaning.
But while scientists monitor how our clothing affects the climate, trend-watchers are more interested in the reverse: how climate change is beginning to alter our apparel.
Grumblings began last fall, when Manhattan retailers — walloped by an unseasonably warm autumn — reported distressingly poor sales of winter coats.
"There is no strong difference between summer and winter anymore," Milan Fashion Week founder Beppe Modenese told The New York Times in September. "The whole fashion system will have to change."
In fact, it is changing — in surprising ways. Bargain chains like Target and Kohl’s have hired climate experts to help them decide what to buy and when. Chicago-based company Live It Green offers Carbon Neutral Clothing certification to manufacturers who commit to buying carbon offsets for every garment sold. And on Amazon.com, you can already buy climate-conscious skivvies: underwear made of sustainably harvested bamboo and new super-textile Ingeo, a man-made fiber spun from 100 percent renewable resources.
Couture designers, in particular, are making use of earth-friendly fibers. The "luxury eco" label by Los Angeles-based Linda Loudermilk boasts dresses made of wood pulp and recycled soda bottles and blouses made of sasawashi, which, in addition to being fun to say, is an anti-allergen blend of Japanese paper, herbs, vitamins and amino acids.
Loudermilk encourages her customers — including celebs Debra Messing and Jennifer Beals — to "wear your conviction in style!" But in the fickle and frivolous fashion industry, it can be hard to distinguish the genuine eco-crusaders from brands just trying to make a buck off the "green-is-the-new-black" trend. And a glance at garment labels isn't much help.
"A label can tell you a shirt is polyester, but many consumers don’t know polyester is made from oil," Paoletti said. "A label can tell you the shirt is 100 percent USDA organic cotton, but that claim doesn't tell the whole story: What about the dyes and finishes used in the shirt?"
Labeling will change, she predicts, as consumers demand to know more about the history of their jeans and jackets. She also envisions a rise in the popularity of fabrics like cashmere and seersucker that keep us warmer in winter and cooler in summer.
"In the future," she said, "'smart clothing' that monitors and adjusts to body temperature may help us reduce our need for air conditioning and heating."
High-tech garb is already available in the form of "body-scanning technology" that guarantees a custom fit for suits and gowns.
"You put on a body suit and walk into some sort of cubicle that does laser imaging of your body," said John Jacob, a professor of fashion design at West Virginia University. "That info feeds into a computer that generates a set of patterns based on your unique body dimensions. The benefit to the biosphere is that nothing is produced that isn't already purchased."
As landfills amass millions of tons of clothing annually, and as thrift stores are swamped with the castoffs of our hyperconsumption, experts say the best way to reduce our planetary impact isn’t by changing outfits. It's by overhauling our attitudes.
"Shakespeare wrote 'fashion wears out more apparel than the man,' and that phrase is even truer today!" Paoletti said. "The pace of fashion change is much, much more rapid now than it was even 100 years ago."
But a growing "slow fashion" movement, taking its cue from the "slow food" philosophy, is encouraging folks to buy higher-quality clothing that lasts longer, saving resources at every point in a garment’s life cycle.
"What if you only had half the wardrobe but everything in it was something you really, really loved?" Paoletti posited. "No regrets, nothing superfluous."
There's one thing she says we should dispose of, though: the hope of a perfect solution.
"You're never going to reduce your carbon footprint to zero, really. I mean, you're here," she said. "And being naked really isn't an option."
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